SAN FRANCISCO — Religious institutions cannot be held liable for discriminating against employees on the basis of religion, the California Supreme Court ruled unanimously Thursday.
The state high court threw out a lawsuit by an evangelical Christian who was fired from a Catholic medical foundation after he proselytized to other employees.
The court held that the U.S. and California constitutions protect thousands of religious employers--including religious publishing houses, television and radio stations and churches and schools--from litigation, said Jeffrey A. Berman, who represented several churches and religious groups in the case.
File clerk Terence Silo had "been counseled three times previously
A Superior Court jury awarded Silo damages and attorney fees, and a state Court of Appeal upheld the awards on the grounds that the state Constitution bars religious discrimination in the workplace. But the Supreme Court said Thursday that religious organizations have the right under the 1st Amendment to "define themselves and their religious message" and may fire workers for "objectionable religious speech."
Secular employers can still be held liable for religious discrimination, but religions need "considerable discretion to choose employees who will not interfere with their religious mission," Justice Carlos R. Moreno wrote for the court.
Lawyers in the case said the decision and other rulings permit religious organizations to make hiring and firing decisions solely on the basis of one's creed.
"The impact of this is great for religious institutions," Berman said. "It indicates that the California Supreme Court is sensitive to the issue of religious autonomy and to both the state and federal constitutional rights of religions to regulate themselves."
Thursday's ruling stemmed from a lawsuit Silo filed against the Catholic Healthcare West Medical Foundation. The organization hired Silo in July 1991 to work in its medical records department in Sacramento. More than a year later, Silo experienced a religious conversion.
"I gave my life to Christ," he testified at trial. "My heart was filled with the Holy Spirit, and my life was changed."
In January 1993, after already having received a poor performance evaluation, Silo met with the managers at the clinic. A fellow employee had complained that Silo told her not "to use the name of God in vain," and a patient objected that Silo had been "preaching" to him.
The managers admonished Silo. He was not to use the word "God ... unless it's off the clock"--not during work time, the court recounted in Silo vs. CHW Medical Foundation. Silo was placed on probation the following month and warned that he would lose his job unless he got more work done.
When he was fired that April, the termination papers cited three incidents in which Silo had continued to "preach" and "Soul Save" despite warnings. Three of his co-workers had complained of harassment.
Silo denied he had harassed anyone and insisted that his religious discussions had occurred during his lunch hour.
Catholic Healthcare West, which runs 42 hospitals in California, Nevada and Arizona, denied that it had discriminated against Silo on the basis of religion. The organization said it has a policy against religious discrimination and fired Silo because of his work performance.
Thursday was the second time the case was before the high court.
A Sacramento jury had found that Catholic Healthcare West had shown religious prejudice and awarded Silo $6,305 in economic damages and $1 for emotional distress. His lawyer was awarded $155,245 in attorney fees.
The 3rd District Court of Appeal initially ruled for Silo on the grounds that the foundation could be held liable under the state Fair Employment and Housing Act.
The California Supreme Court asked the Court of Appeal to reconsider that decision in light of precedents that have held religious organizations exempt from the anti-discrimination law.
The appeals court then decided that Silo could prevail because the California Constitution bars religious discrimination in the workplace. Under the state Constitution, employers must try to accommodate an employee's religious practices.
The Legislature in 1999 and 2000 passed amendments to the state's fair employment law that will allow some religious discrimination lawsuits against religiously affiliated hospitals. The court did not rule on the constitutionality of those amendments Thursday because the case was filed before their passage.
Stephen W. Parrish, who represented Catholic Healthcare West, said the decision indicates that the court, even with the more recent amendments to the fair employment law, views religious discrimination cases differently from other kinds of discrimination claims.
The court noted, in fact, that it might rule another way if a religious employer were sued for sex discrimination.